Katharina Patterson arrived at Victoria's City Hall clutching a framed photo of her great aunt, Constance Webb. When great aunt Connie (then Constance Jones) was a girl, she was taken from her home on Haida Gwaii to a residential school all the way down in Chilliwack. "She was like seven years old, only spoke Haida," said Ms. Patterson of Ms. Webb, who died in the 1980s. "She said it was just torturous."
Ms. Patterson was at City Hall for the unveiling of the Witness Blanket, an enormous art installation made with artifacts from residential schools and related institutions by Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman. Mr. Newman, whose father was a residential school survivor, has been collecting the artifacts – photographs, piano keys, ice skates – from across the country. Tuesday marked the first time the completed work, with hundreds of objects nestled in cedar frames, was shown to the public in its entirety.
Pat Vickers was also there, and located the cufflinks she had contributed to the monument. With their First Nations design, they were a gift from her to her husband, David Vickers, when he was the judge presiding over the case brought by the Tsilhqot'in Nation claiming title to their traditional territory. The landmark case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, where Mr. Vickers's 2007 opinion in favour of the Tsilhqot'in was upheld this June – a victory with significant implications. Mr. Vickers died in 2009.
The ceremony Tuesday morning was emotional, beginning with a prayer by two elders, including Elmer George of the Songhees Nation. "I had a younger sister that drowned at a school. ... They never did find her body," he said to the packed, silent room.
Mary Ann Thomas with the Esquimalt Nation, a survivor of Kuper Island Residential School, warned that the project could open old wounds, but said it was time to heal and move forward. "Carey, you're a hero to do all this," she said.
The Witness Blanket will remain at City Hall until Sept. 26 and then begin a cross-Canada tour. It will next be installed at Capilano University in North Vancouver.